Shadowhunters Executive Producer Michael Reisz On "Malec" and Writing Authentic LGBT Characters

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<i>Shadowhunters</i> Executive Producer Michael Reisz On "Malec" and Writing Authentic LGBT Characters

In a medium that’s steadily diversifying, it’s not surprising the TV adaptation of Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments prominently features LGBT characters. What is surprising is how fantasy-based teen drama Shadowhunters is doing more than the bare minimum with these characters—specifically, shadowhunter Alec Lightwood and warlock Magnus Bane. The epitome of a masculine warrior, Alec is an elite member of the show’s half-human, half-angel race. Driven by the notions of honor, loyalty and an unflinching sense of purpose in a homophobic culture, he spent most of the season in the closet. Meanwhile, Magnus Bane—the 400-year-old enigmatic, bisexual high warlock of Brooklyn—is both immensely powerful and romantically numbed. Upon meeting, Alec and Magnus have an insta-connection.

In an episode coincidentally titled after their budding relationship’s fan-dubbed nickname, “Malec” gave these two characters the type of epic romantic treatment we rarely see for same-sex couples. In the midst of marrying a woman, a plan Alec concocted himself to restore his family’s name, the shadowhunter owned a moment straight out of the The Graduate. Striding down the church aisle, Alec grabs Magnus by the lapels and passionately kisses him in front of his own wedding attendees. Upon seeing it, fans erupted. From gifsets to vines, in a matter of three minutes the Malec kiss broke a good portion of the Internet. The nature of the heart-melting kiss and Alec’s coming out were a slight divergence from the books, but the moment seemed to be, in the end, a change most fans liked. For many of the show’s LGBTQ viewers, it also offered a positive reprieve amid a storm of small screen stories enacting the “bury your gays” trope, a storytelling device that leaves its non-straight characters miserable or dead.

Paste sat down with Michael Reisz, Shadowhunters executive producer and “Malec” episode writer, to discuss the jaw-dropping scene’s inspiration, his effort to write authentic characters, and the pressure of bringing new life to an already popular LGBT romance amid controversy.

Paste Magazine: Let’s start with an easy question. Why did you name the episode after the ship? That’s a really fan-oriented thing to do.
Michael Reisz: For a few reasons, actually. In talking to Cassie [Clare] at the very beginning as we started thinking about the series, she and I bonded pretty closely over the relationship of Magnus and Alec. It was so very, very important to me, and so very, very important to Cassie. It became clear to us just how massively important that ship was to the fans as well. The fans are everything. While not giving away what would happen in episode 12, we wanted to let the fans know we hear them, we think about them and we care just as much about the relationship as they do. And so we thought it was a deserving tribute.

Paste: People still can’t stop talking about how good that kiss was, but a scene can only be performed as well as it’s written. What inspired your writing of that sequence?
Reisz: First of all, thank you. Second of all, credit to everyone involved. To our directors, to our entire crew. As for the inspiration for that kiss and how it was done, there was a very public kiss between Magnus and Alec in City of Glass in Idris during the fight. So Alec coming out was always a very public thing. He was doing it for himself. He’s claiming the authenticity of his life. As we worked with the Lydia storyline and all that it brought up—as we were allowed to expand on Alec, Magnus and their backstories and what their personal struggles are—I really wanted Alec to make the definitive statement ‘I’m going to live authentically, this is what I’m choosing, even with everybody in my ear 24/7.’ Just as Cassie so beautifully did in the books with the public kiss on the battlefield, I wanted to honor that here.

Paste: Alec doesn’t come out until the third book in the series, but you’ve had him come out in the show at the end of the first season. Why did you choose to deviate from the source material in this case?
Reisz: What Cassie does in the books is absolutely beautiful. You have Clary, and her perspective is the main thrust of the books, so the time spent with Alec and the time spent with Magnus was not as much as we were offered the opportunity to do in the television series. With that ability to explore the nuances of their relationship, having Alec come out at the end of Season One is truly just a beginning for both Alec and Magnus, in terms of where they both individually will go, and where they will go potentially as a couple. It was a natural progression of where the story was being told in our television series.

The journey of Alec in Season One is of him owning his power and his authenticity. The journey for Magnus is of him breaking down his walls and giving himself up to love. But that doesn’t mean everything always works out. You never know where things are going to go, and so we have seasons worth of stories planned for them that will both honor and surprise the fans and the characters. Having him come out at the end of Season One gives us an opportunity to launch into the stories we have planned for the future.

Paste: Was there ever the chance that Alec wouldn’t come out in such a grand way? Or was this how it always turned out in the playbook?
Reisz: There’s always discussions in writers rooms. It’s amazing. We go through every iteration of every scenario. So yeah, those were definite discussions. But in the course of the build-up, this seemed just organically the right way to do it. I worked very, very closely with Matt [Daddario] and very, very closely with Harry [Shum, Jr.] as well, like, “Okay, you’ve lived with these guys now for this long in the series. How is this feeling to you? What statements do you want to make?” It’s all a very collaborative, organic process. So this moment was intentional, but every iteration was thought about.

Cassie created special characters, and I remember telling her in our first meeting that this relationship was absolutely important to me—for very, very personal reasons. And you know, we all write stuff we pull from our personal lives, and I very personally responded to Magnus and Alec and all of the journeys they went through. Their story moves me just as much as it moves all the fans. So when Alec says “Enough” to Maryse as he’s walking up to Magnus, for me as the writer—because I can only speak for myself—that was Alec saying “Enough” to the world. “I’m claiming this, I’m going to explore this, I’m going to live authentically and I’m going to become the person I’m going to become.”

Paste: Prior to this episode we see a lot of the characters challenging Alec’s choice to marry Lydia, but in your episode the tides turn and most of them, ultimately, stand by him. Did you mean for it to be especially significant, or was it just a natural progression for where these characters were going?
Reisz: I think a lot of the time when people object to the choices others are making, it’s out of a lack of understanding and a true sense of fear for that person, because you love and care about them. So once the person that you care about says, “This is right for me, this is the person that I am, I know what I’m doing and I’m going to choose this,” the people who love them will rally around them. You may think that you lose everybody if you make a certain choice, but if you’re living honestly, authentically, and ethically—and truthfully—the people that love you will always still be there. That’s what I wanted to show with Alec’s family and friends. They worried about him, they cared about him, but in the end they’re gonna stand by him because they are a family and they stick together.

Paste: Magnus handles Alec like porcelain through most of the season, which offers viewers a positive dynamic between an out and closeted character. Things change though when we get to episode 10. In “Malec” we see why. What did you want those very Magnus-centric moments in the episode to mean for the audience?
Reisz: Magnus has an incredibly long history, and when you have immortality and the ability to live through generations and eras, you can become numb to things. That’s what his backstory with Camille is. Camille is kind of like, ‘Why do you care about these people? You’re immortal. They’re playthings. You should enjoy them. That’s what we’re here for.’ So, when you open your heart, you go deeper. Magnus has been burned twice previously as we’re saying in the series, and when anybody gets burned in a relationship—I know I’ve done that—you put up a wall. You get scared. But as Ragnor tells Magnus at his loft, somebody’s gonna come along to knock down those walls. You have this immortal life, it’s worth living if you have love in it. That’s what Magnus realizes in this episode. He can’t be living behind these walls for eternit, because what’s the point of living if you’re hiding?

As far as treating Alec with kid gloves, I think there’s a dance that goes on between the two of them building up to any relationship. One of the things that was really, really important to me was to tell a true, authentic representation of both straight and gay characters, and not just stereotypes, for a lack of a better word. Every character, whether you’re straight, gay, bi, trans—every character is a multifaceted human being with many different levels of what they care about, what they’re willing to risk, what they’re not willing to risk. I think a lot of times there’s potential for all of those levels to get washed over and that’s something that we fought very hard to protect in all of our characters. Particularly Magnus and Alec within this context.

Paste: Malec have an intense conversation before the wedding, and it’s a pretty affecting scene where Alec says, for the first time, that he’s gay. One thing that struck me though was how quiet Magnus remains throughout it. Why doesn’t he respond to Alec?
Reisz: I’ll tell you, as an out gay man, who is writing both straight and gay characters, those levels and those reactions are important to me. I’ve been involved with the Magnus and Alec storyline since its inception in the series. I’ve sort of been the protector of it through every episode. The writers have done a beautiful job, but we really wanted to layer the character traits to have these people be real people throughout each episode as things built and built. So, as far as Harry’s reaction to Alec’s explanation, this pressure is building up inside of Alec and he tells Magnus to back off. It’s like, everybody is on him right now, I’m in this hurricane and I don’t know how to deal with it.

Magnus hearing this, he’s never really dealt with this before, where he hasn’t gotten what he’s wanted. He’s doing everything he can, while still being this continent warlock, to share that these are what true emotions are. He’s, for the first time, cracking a wall he’s built around his heart a little bit, and opened himself up to Alec. And Alec is saying back off. So in that moment I wanted, and it was a really strong choice by Harry as well as Matt, to let Magnus just hear it and feel it—and revert back to ‘I’m a powerful warlock, and this getting hurt thing kinda sucks.’ Instead of having a big loud fight, Magnus is a proud, strong warlock and so he’s laying it out there. In that silence it’s him that’s regrouping and taking in Alec’s feelings.

Paste: You have this complicated love triangle going on in the show between Alec, Magnus and Jace, three of the show’s leading men. We easily understand Malec, but Jace and Alec have a bond that is really hard to encapsulate. For most of the season their bond was based in sexual attraction, but Jace now knows that Alec is gay. So will you guys continue to explore that aspect of their relationship?
Reisz: You know, it’s a very real situation where feelings shift, feelings get confusing, feelings change—whether you are straight, or gay or bi. So as for Alec and Jace, there’s always going to be that deep, complicated parabatai bond. Right now, Alec is at the very beginning of exploring his feelings for Magnus. How that affects his feelings for Jace may very well play out. Similarly, and again regardless of your orientation, when your best friend starts dating somebody or your best friend gets married, you’re like ‘Hey, I lost my best friend.’ There’s those feelings as well. They’re just very organic, human feelings that are worth exploring. But deep, deep down those two will always have each other’s back because they have that parabatai bond. It may get messy as all true, deep relationships get, but at the end of the day, they are each other’s parabatai.

Paste: You’ve managed to build a tiny empire of sorts with Malec. Are you nervous about what expectations are going forward, considering the strained relationship between media, writers and audiences right now?
Reisz: Not at all. This is just the beginning of the roller coaster. I gotta throw 100% credit to Cassie because she truly created these complex beautiful characters that gave us an opportunity to explore all the nuances that go along with them. We are not nervous about living up to any of it because we truly care about these characters deeply. Every day in the writers room we fight to tell honest stories.